For President Biden, rebuilding U.S. ties with Europe damaged by four years of Donald Trump's contentious leadership is a top priority.
"Let me erase any lingering doubt,” Biden said Friday during a virtual appearance at the Munich Security Conference, “the United States will work closely with our European Union partners and capitals across the continent, from Rome to Riga, to meet the shared challenges we face. We continue to support the goal of a Europe whole and free and at peace.”
For European leaders dismayed by Trump’s “America First” cold shoulder, Biden’s election has come as a relief. He has rejoined the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, reaffirmed American’s commitment to NATO and has signaled that he will seek to jump-start the Iran nuclear deal. Yet even with all those welcome developments, the new president faces a potentially perilous situation with his overseas allies.
Amid a rising chorus of “strategic autonomy,” leaders in the European Union, particularly Germany and France, are showing fierce independence and wariness to rely too heavily on the U.S.
“There's goodwill on both sides to try to make it work, but Europeans are hedging,” says Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “I compare this to a marriage in which trust is broken. Most of them don't last.”
“It's the first time,” says Joseph de Weck, a fellow in the European Security Initiative at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “that Europeans and Americans look into each other's eyes and know that they're sort of drifting away. Maybe they’re not saying goodbye, but the nature of their relationship is changing.”
After four years of Trump continually belittling and slamming European allies, it’s no surprise that the transatlantic bond has seriously frayed. In a recent survey commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations, 67 percent of the 15,000 Europeans polled said the U.S. could not be relied upon to help defend Europe, and that 61 percent believed the American political system was broken — and that was before the storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump’s supporters.
Images of the former U.S. president shoving aside the prime minister of Montenegro as he did at his first NATO summit in 2017 and telling the world at a Finland summit that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word over his own intelligence, or announcing before the U.N. that his administration “accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country” — a comment that drew loud laughter from the General Assembly — are indelibly etched in the minds of those across the ocean.
More chilling to Europeans: Trump’s failure to mention the requisite key phrase at his first NATO appearance in 2017 — affirming Article 5, that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all. For Carisa Nietsche, associate fellow for the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, those actions were in line with Trump “calling members of the European Union ‘foes’ and NATO members ‘free riders.’”
Security from NATO forces is a fundamental concept in the minds of Europeans, who have looked to Western military alliance for protection since the 1950s; alliance members, some of whom Trump accused of not pulling their weight, had already agreed in 2014, before he was president, to pay in 2 percent of GDP by 2024, and their contributions have increased in recent years.
But protection from the U.S., which dominates NATO, wasn’t simply an act of good will, notes former Ambassador Daalder. One of the reasons behind the creation of the Western military alliance was an “American appreciation that the way to avoid another major war that would drag the United States into it — as it had in 1917 and 1941 — was that being present and engaged in the world would be able to prevent World War III” and “was fundamental to our security, prosperity and indeed ultimately our freedom.” The second reason, he adds, was “that the countries that had been devastated by war in Europe needed someone to help them because of the looming threat of the Soviet Union,” which was dragging Eastern Europe into Moscow’s bear hug.
By not affirming Article 5, Trump “planted the seed of this idea of the U.S. being an unreliable partner,” says de Weck. And in between calling NATO “obsolete,” obstructing progress at summits of G-7 countries, the WTO and NATO as well as pulling out of many multilateral agreements and organizations — Trump went on to slap 25 percent tariffs on European exports to the U.S., such as wine and cheese.
“The four years of Trump were very traumatic,” says Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe. And Europeans made efforts to work with him. Initially, she says, “European leaders tried to woo him. They invited him to Buckingham Palace and to the celebrations of Bastille Day in France. But following the NATO summit and G-7 summit, it was evident that they weren’t going to make any inroads.”
Balfour says the European attitude toward Trump became more about “damage control and containment.” Now, she says, “Europeans are very cautious of switching back to the expectation that that things might return to normal and that we're onto a new era with the Biden administration.”
And part of the Trump legacy, she says, is that Europeans are worried they will face Trump, or at least Trumpism, again in four years.
Even the dynamics of the normally robust transatlantic relationship — one that weaves in security, trade, culture and tourism — have changed. Britain, typically the loudest cheerleader for the U.S., left the EU in December. Further weakening the bond between trading partners is the swift economic rise of China. According to the ECFR poll, 59 percent believe that China will flick aside the U.S. to become the dominant world superpower in 10 years.
With initiatives such as China’s One Belt, One Road — which includes finance packages for infrastructure projects — and the push for Chinese telecom Huawei to equip Europe’s 5G programs, China has been making serious headway into Europe. This week, trade figures showed that the U.S. — the biggest trading partner in Europe for decades — experienced trade volume of $673 billion with the EU, compared with $711 billion between the EU and China. “Now China is Europe's main trading partner,” says Nietsche. “In 2020, imports from China into the EU grew by 5.6 percent.”
Just as alarming from Washington’s point of view was what happened in the last weeks of the Trump presidency. In December, in a move driven by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU ignored a tweeted plea from Biden’s incoming national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to wait before making decisions about China, signing an investment agreement with Beijing that opens the door for European investments worth billions of dollars in the Asian country.
“Future historians,” de Weck said, “will look at this deal and perceive it as a sort of coming-of-age moment for Europe to go its own way and sort of a breaking point in the transatlantic relationship.”
Former Ambassador Daalder sees the agreement between the EU and China as strategic.
“China is competing with the United States for global power and influence — it's what big powers do. But the biggest geostrategic disadvantage China has is it has only one ally — called North Korea. The United States has 55 [allies], which together account for 65 percent of global GDP and 70 percent of global military power. So if you want to compete with the United States, the best way to do it is to divide and conquer — so dividing allies makes total sense.”
Not only is China trying to weaken the bond between Europe and the U.S., it has also moved to divide Europe — luring poorer, smaller countries in Eastern and Central Europe to summits under an initiative called “17 plus 1,” with China offering infrastructure and financing packages such as constructing a railway from Hungary to Serbia or bridges in Croatia.
Roland Freudenstein, policy director of the Martens Centre think tank in Brussels, sees “putting the poor countries of the so-called 17 plus 1 group into debt” as part of a worrisome Chinese strategy that he fears will ultimately weaken Europe.
“We allegedly reasserted our sovereignty by making a deal with China and we should know full well that Europe cannot stand on its own vis-à-vis China,” Freudenstein said about the EU’s investment agreement with Beijing, which the U.S. frowned on. “So we're celebrating this Pyrrhic victory over a U.S. that we don't trust anymore, and we're actually giving in to the manifold worse threat of a too-powerful Chinese Communist Party, which is going to do us in in a few years.”
But China isn’t the only outside player dealmaking with Europe. In January, Merkel green-lit the final construction of a Gazprom pipeline from Russia to Germany — a move that Biden has called “a bad deal for Europe” as it increases European dependence on Russian energy supplies.
Despite the precariousness of the moment, there’s a sense that if anyone is able to heal the wounds inflicted by Trump, it is Joe Biden.
“Biden has a strong connection with Europe, and many people in the administration are very knowledgeable of things European,” says Balfour. “We have a moment in which Europeans and North Americans can rethink their relationship and do so not just with an eye towards strengthening the transatlantic relationship but with an eye towards how can we as the old drivers of the West can help rebuild the multilateral order in a more inclusive way and not just be focused on the old West” — but also bring in Asia, Africa and Latin America and other partners to rebuild that.
The key, she said, is doing what incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised: to be humble and listen to allies.
“The deeper underlying issue is that Europe would like to be treated like an equal partner and not just a junior partner,” Balfour said. “Europeans want to be heard.”
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